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Love Apartments, Fancy Taxis, and Karaoke: What Ordinary Life is Like in North Korea

A journalist and author who wrote a book on the reclusive nation tells us what regular life is like there.
IMAGE WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
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Daniel Tudor is a British journalist and author who is now based in Seoul, South Korea. He graduated with a degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics from Oxford University and completed an MBA from the University of Manchester Business School. Besides working as a correspondent for The Economist, he has also written three books. 

The first two are about his adoptive home of South Korea—Korea: The Impossible Country, and A Geek in Korea. The third is about North Korea, which he co-wrote with fellow journalist James Pearson. Published in 2015, North Korea Confidential: Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissenters and Defectors is a fascinating glimpse into ordinary life in the so-called Hermit Kingdom.

Tudor himself traveled to North Korea to see for himself how regular citizens live in one of the world’s most reclusive countries.

Excerpts:

How did you end up living in South Korea in the first place?

My best friend at university was Korean. I'm sure he still is (chuckles). He invited me to the World Cup in 2002 so his dad managed to get some tickets for the games and so a group of us went over. It was just mind-blowing because it was my first time outside of the West. The world cup was really a special time so people were crazy drunk and partying in the streets.

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How old were you then?

I was 19. It was just a really, really good time. And, uh, I suppose back then, you're looking at when you graduate from university, if you're English, you probably work in London and you do a serious job like being an accountant or something in finance. And, it just made me think, ‘Oh, it's so boring and I want to do something different.’

I just liked Korea so much. There's a social necessity for mutual sort of sacrifice for each other. Like you're expected to help each other and be a good friend.

How long did you end up staying there?

The first time was three years. I taught English for one year. I worked for an investment company, or two different ones, uh, because the first one actually went bankrupt. Then my final job during that time I worked for a Korean investment firm.

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I came home, did an MBA, but then halfway through, I did this internship with The Economist, and that’s when I realized, maybe I can write it or maybe I should be doing something like this instead of something business-y.

And then one day in 2010 after I graduated and worked for another investment firm, I got this email from the Asia editor of The Economist saying, Oh, do you want to go back to Korea and write for us?

So I said yeah, very much I would love to. And so yeah, I was on a plane a week after and that was it. 

You’re also known in Korea for beer, aren’t you?

Yeah, because I wrote this article saying that North Korean beer is better than South Korean beer. And it's true.

Photo by NEEDPX.
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So, all the time that you were living there, did you know a lot about North Korea?

Not at first, no. And for a long time I was really trying to concentrate on South Korea. But if you're a foreign correspondent in South Korea, you're constantly being asked to write about North Korea. You get asked questions like, ‘Is there going to be a nuclear test? Are they going to do this? Is Kim Jong Un ill? Is he crazy? Is he killing people with wild dogs?' There's always that kind of ridiculous story. And so my attitude is always that it's virtually impossible to know that kind of stuff. 

But then I became very good friends with a guy called James Pearson who I ended up writing the book with.

James has been to North Korea about six or seven times. Between him another friend who did a TED Talk about North Korea, it got me interested in it. And then the publisher approached me. They said, we really want a book on North Korea.

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At first I almost said no. I was drafting a response saying, you know, I don't think I want to do that. And then I thought, maybe if I do it with James, it can work.

Over time then I really got into it because actually there's a real untold story about North Korea, which is how ordinary people are living. Cause it's always about the big fat dictator who loves cheese, loves his rockets, that kind of stuff. Or it's about prison camps, which, you know, they’re real, they do exist and as far as I know, really awful.

But what is the other 98 percent of the population doing? How do they live? How do they work? What are their opinions about things? And how has that changed in the past 20 years? Because the famine was a huge turning point for North Korea. And so over time I started to meet people, interview people and we had some really good sources.

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At that point, had you been to North Korea yet?

I hadn't been yet. When I was a journalist, I wasn't allowed to go because The Economist has a very sarcastic tone, especially when we wrote about North Korea, and obviously they didn't like that. They never used to let me in. 

And then after I left (The Economist), I was finally able to go because of the beer controversy. There was a guy who was managing a brewery in North Korea and a friend of mine was visiting. The leader of that group, he was taking a tour around this brewery, and the manager said, ‘Did you know this British magazine The Economist said our beer is much better than South Korean beer?’ And my friend said, ‘Well, yeah, my friend wrote that.’ And then it was, ‘Why don’t you invite him?’ And so that's how I came to go.

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This was in Pyongyang?

Yes. I had to give a talk at the grand people's city hall. It was a very fancy building.

I was there for about a week. I gave a lecture on marketing. They didn't know I was writing a book. It was quite scary actually. The whole time I was making notes and taking pictures of everything and wondering, did they know that? Because I did give one interview before that when I said I was writing a book on North Korea. So I just hoped they didn't pick up on that.

But it was fine. In North Korea, you always have people watching you. You're with somebody all the time.

So the whole time you were there, did you ever feel, I don't know, unsafe or threatened in any way?

Not really. No. I mean I think if I were American I would be more worried because they're always looking for American captives. Because, yeah, America is the enemy.

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What sort of things did you learn?

So I talked to defectors, or people who manage groups of defectors and we have business contacts. There’s one we talked to who would tell us these stories. Like, in North Korea, in a big city, let's say a young guy and a girl, they're dating now. In Seoul, if you wanted to have sex with your girlfriend, you go to a love motel, you go to that kind of place.

But in North Korea, that doesn't exist. So what happens is you go to an apartment building, and there'll be a middle-aged lady there who will rent you her room. So you give her some money and she leaves for an hour in the afternoon while you do what you want to do. So you do your thing she's got the money. And she'll be spending that money in one of these illegal street markets.

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North Korea is so capitalist now. And that's just how it works.

Photo by WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

Where else did you go? Just Pyongyang?

I went to a city called Pyongsong, which is probably about 50 kilometers away maybe. But it took a very long time because as soon as you get outside of Pyongyang, the roads are terrible. Pyongyang is quite nice. But the rest of the country is a mess.

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I took some pictures of every day life while we were in the bus to Pyongsong. Most of it is standard touristy stuff, but they force you to go there.

If you look at the signs, this is like how South Korean signs would look like 50 years ago.

So if you're to ask, what's North Korea like? What are the sights and sounds? I would say it’s kind of like a very old-fashioned South Korea.

Except maybe for the taxis. The taxis there are better than a lot of countries’. I was in Hong Kong a few weeks ago and (the ones in Pyongyang) are much nicer taxis than the ones in Hong Kong. And there are five companies now providing taxis and competing with each other.

So this is normal life. That's the thing. People don't talk about that. It's almost politically incorrect to talk about this kind of thing in North Korea. You always have to say things like prison camps, which is true. But there are other things, too. 

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Yeah because that’s what sells.

Right. Like, for example, there’s like the main square place where they have programs (in Pyongyang). And people are playing tennis there. Tennis!

When I was there, we were singing karaoke, drinking beer and eating pizza. There was a pizza restaurant in Pyongyang. 

Yeah now I heard there are actual tour groups organizing trips to Pyongyang. Although it's super expensive, like it probably costs more than a trip to Europe or something.

Yeah. Clearly it wouldn't be as much fun in North Korea. I mean it is actually very boring. Once you get used to it.

Probably nothing to do.

Yeah. (Shows some photos) A lot of this was taken from the window because we're driving along in a bus. I think this guy is trading goods between different towns. You see a lot of people on bikes doing that and they're taking a break and a smoke, And riding a horse.

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You see a lot of people selling things on the street, a lot of them women.

You went there during the summer?

Yeah, that's right. Yeah. I mean if you go there in the winter, it's freezing.

People are selling a lot of stuff there. And all of it is illegal really. They’re not supposed to be doing that. But everyone's doing it and that's how they're living. So I think the fact that I was able to see that is actually quite interesting because if you're a foreigner in North Korea, they only show you what they want you to see, and if they don't mind us seeing that, I think that was quite amazing.

So, the whole time you were there, they knew you were taking pictures of stuff?

Yeah, although I was at the back of the bus and the guides were up front and often I just kind of had my iPad and I was going like that (mimes taking pictures).

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There’s a sign that says juche, which means self-reliance. It's the official philosophy of North Korea, which they don't really practice.

Once you get out of Pyongyang, it's a disaster. Just the state of some of these buildings that the people live in. But what's apparently changed since I went there is that now you'll see a lot of solar panels.

That’s another thing: electricity is very bad in North Korea and you might get a few hours in the morning or a few hours in the evening and then no more. Recently a lot of cheap solar panels have come in from China. So everyone's got these solar panels.

You see women on bikes, they're all trading. (They’re) selling something or some vegetables, rice, or something. I don't know. And all of it is very illegal. But you need that to make a living because the government cannot provide for the people anymore.

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But in Pyongyang, you will not see a woman riding a bicycle. Kim Jong Il hated to see women riding bikes. And so he banned it. The ban has since been removed, but it became a sort of established practice.

Photo by TUTTLE PUBLISHING.

Women aren't supposed to be ‘present.’

That's an interesting thing about North Korea. The political control is really, really strong. You oppose or criticize the government, then your life is well… (trails off).

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But if you're doing something else, you know, if you're drunk in public or breaking some other kind of rule outside of Pyongyang, they don't really care. They only care about that political control. And money.

(Shows a picture of a guy fixing a bike). And this guy fixes bikes. The roads are pretty bad and everyone's got second or third-hand bicycles, so they're always breaking down. If you can fix a bike in North Korea, you can make a living. It's usually guys who do that.

You'll see women cleaning the clothes, doing their laundry. Fifty years ago, you'll see that in South Korea, but not now.

You see kids playing in the streets and roads. The impression that you get is it's just a very poor country.

One more thing. In a border between Pyongyang and (one of the southern provinces), you'll see three red lines. That means you can go in, but you can't stay. So if you are an ordinary resident of this one province, you're not allowed to live in Pyongyang because living in Pyongyang is a privilege that is only given to the most loyal people.

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Let's say that 50 or 80 years ago your grandfather or great grandfather did something that was helpful for the Japanese or did something that was, I don't know, a capitalistic. Then your family would be marked for several generations. So you can't live in Pyongyang, you’re trash.

So if your family has that, yeah, you can't go in there. And if they catch you, well, 20 years ago, if they caught you, (they would have thrown you) in the prison camp, but now you just pay them $30 or the Chinese yuan equivalent and they let you carry on. And for some time, the bribe to live there was actually higher than the bribe to leave North Korea at the border because it's considered such a big deal to live in Pyongyang.

What do you think is the biggest misconception people, outsiders especially, might have about about North Korea?

Regarding the people, I think the biggest misconception is that North Koreans are robots and they're all brainwashed and they're all stupid people who follow the leader. I mean, the way I like to think of it is if I grew up with a very, very religious family, perhaps they're into some religious cult and I'm in a school where they teach me that. My parents tell me that when I go home and I'm surrounded by it. When I grow up, there's a good chance I'll believe in that. But then I might rebel against it.

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I think often it's like that in North Korea. Since the famine, a lot of people had this shock. There is an implicit contract in North Korea that if you trust in the state and you obey the state perfectly, then the state will protect you from foreign aggression and will provide for you. I think since the famine, people have realized that actually, especially the second part, the government just stopped providing food for people because the state became bankrupt and so the contract was broken. So then people start to realize, you know what, maybe this is a lot of nonsense.

Um, but of course, a lot of people still believe in it because they've been raised to, and they're surrounded by the propaganda. But you know, I'm sure a critical, intelligent person would realize this is a lot of nonsense. But the question is, can they oppose it? And they can’t. They just have to follow quietly. But then they can commit quiet acts of rebellion, like watching South Korean TV and being entertained. And then they talk about it with each other.

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And if you get caught with South Korean TV, you just bribe somebody. Most of the time it's okay if you just bribed them.

For the political stuff, I think the biggest misconception is that North Korea is crazy. It's not crazy, it's bad. It's evil even, but it's not crazy. I think they've played a weak hand very well. They actually know that they get a benefit by acting crazy by making the average person in America think, ‘Oh shit, these crazy North Koreans, they've got nuclear weapons, they're going to attack us.’ But by doing that, I think that that kind of helps them. The only way they will attack is if they are attacked first. I mean, if they do something, you know, if they use the nuclear weapons, then America will destroy them, obviously, and even China won't accept it.

So there's no reason for them to do that. And if you're Kim Jong Un, or a member of his family or you’re a member of the elite you have no benefit from a war. Your life would be over.

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So I think they like to cultivate the appearance of craziness in order to make people afraid and extract favors and rewards in return for promising that they will act less crazy. And so there's this, it's been this constant back and forth over the years, do crazy things, then come back to talk, get some money, then do another crazy thing.

Photo by WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.
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So I mentioned that there are now some for Filipinos who might want to go to Pyongyang. Would you recommend people go there?

If you've got this idea of a bucket list, and you really want to, then okay. But I think, first of all, there's an ethical question, which is I mean, whenever you spend money on anything, there’s an ethical choice, right? I mean, yeah, I'm sure that some of the clothes I'm wearing are probably made by people in very terrible conditions. 

Like child labor.

Probably, I mean, I don't know how you even avoid it. But yeah, there is that question. So in my case, I was researching a book, so I think I'm justified, but if you're just going to be a tourist, I don't know. But it's up to you. It's up to the individual. I don't want to get into that question.

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But beyond that, is it value for money? So the normal question you would ask if you're thinking of going on holiday, is it fun? How much is it going to cost? You know, things like that. What are we gonna do when we get there? I think if you're judging it like that, the answer is don't go, it's boring. It really is. 

If you see a picture of Kim Jong Un, or if they show pictures of his dad or his granddad. If you see writing, it's a slogan praising Kim Jong Un, or the government. If you hear music, it's the lyrics praising him again and everything is just a monoculture directed towards this family. It's depressing.

I think a lot of people when they read about North Korea, they hate it because, they think it’s crazy and of course, the nuclear weapons. But yeah, I also hate it, but I think more because it brutalizes and abuses its own people, and takes away their opportunities. It forces them into a gray box.

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And there's a whole richness of life that I think the people there are not allowed to experience and the only reason they're being forced to live like that is to satisfy the desires of a very selfish elite.

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Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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